Out of the brains and hearts of babes

November afternoon. Driving down backroads alongside bare brown fields where a smattering of birds takes flight. Snatches of woods scattering scarlet and yellow leaves into the swirling wind. A glance in the rearview mirror: My kindergarten granddaughter, strapped into her carseat, looks pensively through the window.

I shall make conversation…

—You’re very quiet.

—I’m just thinking.

—About what?

—Different things.

—I see.

(pause to see if she’s going to elaborate. She doesn’t. So…)

—I have a question for you.

—What?

—The other day you said you wanted to be a scientist when you grow up.

—Yes.

I’m curious: What kind of scientist? There are so many, you know. Do you want to be a biologist, studying living things?

I want to be a nurture scientist.

A nurture scientist-? Do you mean nature, or…

No, a nurture scientist like the Jeopardy! host.

Ahhh… Mayim Bialik. You mean neuroscientist.

Yes. I want to be a neuroscientist.

—Do you know what neuroscientists do?

—They learn about how brains work.

She is five.

Full of love and wonder and confidence. These and the deep blue sky are reflected in her eyes. No limits, only infinite possibility. The faith of a child is a pure and mighty thing.

Someday I shall tell her about the hippocampi, the two little seahorses in the brain that so fascinate me, and their importance to learning, memory, and emotion, how they navigate us through the stormy seas of life.

But on this golden afternoon, as we head home where her mother and baby sister await, I just marvel at her own brain. The beginning of a brilliant neuroscientist, if that is indeed what she wants to be. The world can surely use more. Humans, know thyselves. It is a daily, moment-by-moment undertaking.

Meanwhile, as evening settles in, I Christmas-shop online for my granddaughter and discover a book by her role model, Mayim Bialik: Flash Facts: Ten Terrific Tales About Science and Technology!

I place it in the cart, thinking about Bialik’s own inspiration to pursue neuroscience, born of a love for understanding the way we think and feel and communicate. On a whim, I search for “nurture scientist.” Turns out that nurture science is a real thing: research-based therapy around the healing power of nurturing as a means of helping families cope with emotional, behavioral, and developmental difficulties.

The tugging of the tiny hippocampi on those reins between the brain and the heart.

Ever a delicate balance.

“Sketchnotes Contemplative Neuroscience with Richard Davidson at Wisdom 2.0”. ForbesOste. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

Milk carton analogy

breakfast for all if they want it
during COVID,
so they enter the cafeteria,
pick up a bag with a biscuit or
cereal or french toast sticks
(without syrup;
the cafeteria ran out of it yesterday)
or breakfast pizza, whatever
that given day provides,
and wait for a neon-vested
safety patrol in fifth grade
to send them,
one by one,
to my colleague or to me
so we can seat them

protocols say they can’t sit facing
one another at the diagonal,
spaced-out tables
so seats fill up fast,
and a lengthening line
of masked, bag-clutching children
must stand until somebody in the
crowd finishes eating, meaning that
my colleague or I must dash over
with spray cleaner and a paper towel
(that won’t absorb)
while calling for safety patrol:
“I can take one here!”

the children seem so dazed, sometimes,
like they don’t recognize this planet or
maybe even humanity anymore
but once at the seats,
they open the bags
to eat

forgot the jelly

go back and get it

I need a spoon

it’s in your bag, look again

and invariably, the one thing
most often prompting a
little raised hand:

I can’t open my milk

I see. Have you tried?

shaking of small head

well, you must try

some little fingers are more adept
than others…some little faces light
up upon realizing: they actually can
open the milk carton, without help

some must be told, no, not
on that side, see the side with
the arrow, it says open here,
push it back, all the way back,
see these words, push here,
no, not smush, more like pinch,
like this, see?

one by one, the cartons open

like windows in the mind, for one
does have the ability to do things
not attempted before, and the secret
is really in the trying, not relying

learned helplessness

is what I am thinking about
as I scrub my hands five times
before I can go finish preparing
four training sessions
for teachers tomorrow,
on professional learning teams
and problem-solving
in the time of COVID
even though I’m already tired
and the day’s only just begun

yes, we can
we must try

*******

special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

Brave beginnings

with thanks to Tammi over on Ethical ELA for sharing the “sevenling” poem. She writes: “The sevenling is a seven line poem written in two stanzas with an additional single line wrap up. The first stanza (lines 1-3) consists of three lines with connected ideas, details, statements. The second stanza (lines 4-6) also contains three ideas, details or statements. These may or may not be connected to previous stanza. Line seven should wrap up the poem or offer a juxtaposition to your previous stanzas. Because of the brevity of this poem, the last line should leave the reader with a feeling that the whole story has not been revealed.”

This is my first sevenling, really a tribute to someone special…reveal to come afterward.

Facing the Inevitable

Life pivots on this point.
Resolute but trembling at the threshold,
she considers her new place of belonging.

Releasing pent-up breath,
she takes a draft of courage with familiar paper and pencil:
“#1 Teacher seems nice #2 Not too scary”

—She’s starting kindergarten. 

My granddaughter’s handwritten takeaway following kindergarten Open House:
“#1 Teacher seems nice #2 Not too scary”

Strength and safety to all going back into schools as COVID rages on.

Thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge and for always promoting writing. To paraphrase Donald Graves: Children really do want to write. They want to leave their own marks on the world. At age five, that is. Too often “school” turns writing to a chore, emphasizing receptive literacy over expressive, or valuing the ideas of others over one’s own.

Let us be about nurturing a lifelong love of the craft and belief in the power of one’s own thoughts and voice.

Write bravely.

Shedding

Let me preface this post with a restated confession: I am not exactly a fan of snakes.

But they, like all of nature, have lessons to teach, if one is willing to learn.

I hope to always be teachable, so…

Early in the summer I found a snakeskin in my garage. Just a little one, but still.

A few weeks later, I found another.

This morning, I found a couple more.

So.

Snakes seem to have been vacationing in my garage. Let us think on that momentarily versus thinking that they’ve taken up permanent residence there.

Here is why I say this: The skins, I’m pretty sure, belong to smooth earth snakes. I’ve seen a couple over the past year or so, which is saying something: These are nonvenomous, shy, fossorial snakes that don’t like to be seen. The first one I saw was dead, lying across my sidewalk after a rainstorm. Pale gray body. I thought it was a worm until I saw the tell-tale scales. The second one was stretched out in my flowerbed mulch, black tongue flickering in and out “smelling” the air, trying to determine what I was. That’s it for my lifetime earth snake sightings. Two. They are uncommon, tiny creatures…just the size of these silvery skins left behind.

So they live in the ground around my home, harmless little things, going about their business of eating earthworms and itty bitty snails or whatever.

And coming into my garage to moult.

Which is nevertheless discomfiting. For me, anyway. Not for the bashful snakes.

I don’t especially want one to come all the way inside and hang out or anything.

But they do have me thinking (among many things) about shedding one’s skin. Metaphorically, that is. As in, what sorts of things I wrap around myself and cling to when I could be letting go and growing. Mindsets, habits, beliefs, assumptions, what have you. Which things actually nourish me, and which actually constrain me? Which are beneficial, and which are harmful? What do I need to shed and leave behind, to better move forward?

I suppose this thinking occurs because summer is waning. I return to work next week not knowing what the year ahead will look like, other than back to masked here in my district. I think about the possibility of a full return to virtual learning. It is more than a great many teachers can take. Yet… we got through last year. The children got through. There were good things in spite of the trials; there were surprises. Many from the children and most concerning ourselves. School of 2020-2021 took a toll on everyone. We had to shed quite a bit of familiarity and comfort to get things done. But we did it. We grew.

I don’t wish for a repeat any more than I wish for snakes to be summering in my garage. I cannot ignore the timing of COVID rearing its more-venomous-than-ever head again when we thought it was on its way out, just when we are on our way back into the schools. I now have a granddaughter starting kindergarten. Her little sister will be born this fall. There’s always a lot at stake when it comes to children—in the words of Herbert Hoover (ever how unpopular a president he was in his day): “Children are our most valuable resource.” There’s nothing more precious. They represent our tomorrows; they are the culmination of our yesterdays. We have to shed the fear of failing them. Not assuming the worst, or that “we can’t,” but doing daily, as only that given day dictates, what must be done for their care and nurture as well as for our own. We have to be… well, “as wise as serpents.” When it comes to plans, we have to hold on loosely, ever how painfully contrary it is to our nature.

This summer I had plans for household repairs and updates. That was before the dryer quit working. Followed by the air conditioning during the hottest week of the year (of course). Followed by turning on the water one morning and nothing coming out of the faucet; the pump died.

I did repairs, all right. Just not the ones I planned.

But I got through. I now have a new dryer and water pump. The AC unit didn’t have to be replaced, thank heaven. All is working well. Throughout this whole process I thought about adapting. I dried clothes out in the hot sun. I remembered how my grandparents never owned a dryer. I thought about that one window air conditioner they had (late in their lives) against a sweltering Carolina summer and no AC at all in the old Ford Galaxy 500; I once left a stack of 45 RPM records on its back deck under the windshield. They melted. They warped and ruffled like clam shells. I’ve never had to pump or draw water in my life, but I had plenty of bottled water and didn’t have to miss my morning coffee while waiting on the new pump.

So I attempt to bring the lesson of shed snakeskin to a point here: In the discomfort is growth. Newness lies ahead; it approaches incrementally as we scratch away at the constraints and setbacks of now. Endurance is possible. We certainly know this. Sometimes the thing that needs shedding most is our perspective…

Meanwhile, I go back to cleaning out my garage, another thing I hadn’t planned to do right now, but the snakeskins sparked it. Time to purge what needs to go and put up a shelf to keep everything else off the floor. I am working on it. Hot, tiresome, dusty work, but I can see my progress.

And it feels good.

Thanks to the snakes.

******

thanks also to the Two Writing Teachers community, where writing our way through is a way of life…courage and strength to all.

Preparing

She comes into the house, suitcase in tow, little face aglow at spending a couple of nights while her parents keep doctor’s appointments. She hugs them good-bye and before they’re halfway down the sidewalk, she grabs my hand:

“Franna, want to play with me?”

Isn’t there only one answer to this question?

“Of course! What do you want to play?”

“Family.”

Ah.

We head to “her” room, where I keep books and blocks and bears and dolls and even a couple of old baby blankets for wrapping them. She’s always the mom. I am always the oldest child. I have to help her hold, feed, and potty-train the toys…er, my siblings.

“First I need to unpack,” she announces.

“Okay,” I say, as she unzips her suitcase, navy-blue with pink and white unicorns. “So, tomorrow we find out if you’re having a brother or sister! Isn’t it exciting?”

She nods: “I want a sister.”

“I know you do…but a brother would be nice, too” (because her parents and I think the baby is a boy).

She nods again, pulling a couple of stuffed animals out of her suitcase. She sets them on the bed. “Mama told me to be happy if it’s a boy.”

I am about to speak but just then, I notice something…

She’s brought Allioop, the raggedy orange cat that belonged to my son when he was little. She’s dressed him in Curious George’s T-shirt. He leans against the pillow beside a woolly bear sporting a pastel nightcap.

Allioop and the bear are wearing diapers.

“Did you put these diapers on your toys?”

“Yes. I’m practicing for the baby. Watch…” She shows me how to remove and replace the diapers with their little Velcro tabs.

Strikes me as one of the greatest acts of love I’ve seen.

Preparing.

Her parents FaceTimed to tell us that the new baby is, in fact, a girl.
My granddaughter, who’s five, bounced up and down with joy:
“My wish came true!”
She later told my son that she can’t wait to teach her sister the word “photosynthesis.”

Dear Baby, what a wealth of love surrounds you, already.

*******

with thanks to the Two Writing Teachers community for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Prosody of life: Revisiting awe

A Slice of Life doubling as a Spiritual Journey offering later this week, on the first Thursday of the month (thanks to Ruth for hosting). The SJT participants are revisiting the “one little word” each of us chose at the beginning of the year. At that time, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to choose a defining word for the year…but “awe” chose me, in spite of myself. Also practicing a bit for my poetry course this week; we are writing prose poems. Priming the pump, if you will…

Where am I now in relation to awe?

Perhaps more in tune to its vibrations each day…

Late in the evenings, a whipporwhill sings, three notes repeated over and over in the dark; yet it is the brightest of songs, summoning summer, beckoning life, new life in the making, love echoing from the treetops. Whipporwhills are seldom seen and their numbers are declining, yet the song illuminates the night, vibrant, rising and falling, going on and on, like rhythmic patterns of life itself…my granddaughter comes to visit with a book she’s reading, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I say, “Oh, I love that book! It was my favorite when I was little,” except that I was ten when I first read it and she is five. Five. And she laughs when I tell her that I’ve dubbed her bedroom here in my house the “Spare Oom” in honor of the faun, Mr. Tumnus. She reads to me, her little voice rising and falling in all the right places; I marvel that she’s been in the world so short a time…I recall my son telling me how she stood on a box at the pulpit with him on Easter Sunday to read the Scriptures, the story of life overcoming death; images of trees crowd into my mind, for around this part of the country storms swept through as winter gave way to spring, snapping off the top-heavy crowns of young trees. Their crowns are still lying dead where they fell but on the broken tree trunks, new shoots are already growing tall, reaching their green arms skyward, waving in the breeze, new life from old, wholeness and healing springing from broken places… meanwhile, my son’s wife cradles her belly, just beginning to swell with my new grandchild; at the end of this this week we will get to see the pictures, and will learn if it’s a boy or a girl, and the naming process will be solidified…my younger son comes in from his work at the funeral home and speaks of birds, barn swallows with basket-like nests tucked at the tops of columns in the entryway, hatching brood after brood as the bereaved pass by to mourn beside the caskets of their loved ones awaiting burial, and how one of the funeral directors who lives alone in the apartment above likes to open the windows on pretty days to toss bread crumbs to the birds on the rooftop, taking pleasure in watching them eat…in it all I find a rhythm, a song, the prosody of life, awe flickering like flame in the shadows, whipporwhill, whipporwhill, whipporwhill…

Reading the old, old story

Skinny poem: Lunch in the school cafeteria during COVID-19

A Skinny Poem, on Day Twelve of National Poetry Month. For me this is an indelible image.

Lunch in the School Cafeteria During COVID-19

Unmasked, they sit, all facing the same direction to eat
children
separated
silent
staring
children
spectral
dystopian
automatons
children
all facing the same direction, they sit to eat, unmasked

*******

with thanks to Denise Krebs for the inspiration in #VerseLove on Ethical ELA.

How to write a Skinny Poem:

  • Write to a strong image, experience, emotion, event, a work of art….consider the image you want to write about and describe the situation in the first line.
  • Only lines 1 and 11 have multiple words. Lines 2-10 are each one word only
  • Line 2, 6, and 10 are each the same word.
  • Line 11 uses the same words as line 1, but it can be rearranged for your purposes.
  • You can also write multiple Skinnys for one longer poem.

I didn’t know I loved poem

with thanks to Barb Edler who posted the prompt for #VerseLove on Ethical ELA: “Consider the challenges you’ve overcome, the celebrations you can rejoice, the way you may miss something that you never realized you missed”…as inspiration for a “things I didn”t know I loved” poem.

When I returned to college later in life, after having had a family, I was asked to write an essay on “My Most Memorable Teacher.” I’d never thought about this before and was unprepared to write on the teacher who came immediately to mind…but I did write.

I had to.

On Day Nine of National Poetry Month, I give it to you in poem form.

For Mrs. Cooley

You terrified me, you know
looming large
an immovable mountain
in pearls and heels
casting your dark shadow
over my fourth-grade days

The topography of your years
etched deep on your face
your eagle eyes
piercing my very existence

The fear and trembling
of math drills—
Dear Lord
save me
from subtraction!—
I look up 
and there it is 
in your expression:
You can’t squeeze blood
from a turnip

I did not know
that many years later
when I’d be asked to write
of my most memorable teacher
that you’d spring to mind
clear as day
overshadowing all others

and that what I’d recall
is how you read 
Charlotte’s Web to the class

I did not know
I could love a spider so

and then how you read us
Old Yeller

My God my God
I almost died with 
that dog

I did not know
that you were the one
who made me love reading
for there is a difference
in being able to 
and it being the air you breathe

I could not believe
how worried you were
when I fell on the playground that day
how you cradled my distorted left arm
all the way to the office 
and waited with me
‘til Daddy came

I never dreamed
you’d come see me at home
when I had to stay in bed
propped with pillows
ice bag on my cast

I saw you
and the tears came—
I am missing the last two weeks of school
I won’t pass the fourth grade

I did not know you could CHUCKLE
that your sharp blue eyes
could go so soft
and watery
and I never heard that phrase before:
flying colors
you pass with flying colors

Would you believe
I am a teacher now
it isn’t what I planned
but here I am

I never knew until Daddy told me
years ago
that you’d passed
how much I’d long
to see you again
to ask you a thousand things
maybe even to laugh

but more than anything
to thank you
with all my heart

so I do that now
in hopes that you
and Charlotte
and Old Yeller
know that
my love
lives on

Photo: Girl reading. Pedro Ribeiro Simðes. CC BY – reminds me of young me

*******

Thanks also to Tabatha Yeatts for hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup